An airport encounter between native tongues

by | Jul 25, 2016 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 2 comments

We had just landed from Haiti. The airplane was packed; it was hot and sticky, and the little girl I was traveling with was sick. As we entered the jetway, I was relieved to see a row of wheelchairs waiting.

“We ordered one of those,” I said.

Two airport workers, a woman and a man, maybe in their 40s, looked at me and nodded. I pointed again.

“For her?” I said. “That’s her name on the board.”

They nodded again and looked at each other.

“Uno momento,” the woman finally said.

People pushed past. Some bumped us. Standing in a jetway with your luggage and a 6-year-old doesn’t make you popular with passengers.

“What’s the holdup?” I asked, somewhat irritated.

Neither of the workers looked at me. The woman seemed nervous. “Uno momento,” she repeated.

The little girl began to cry. The bag straps — hers and mine — dug into my shoulder.

“We ordered a chair. That’s her name. Come on.”

The two of them moved a few steps as if looking for someone — a supervisor? — but no one came. Finally they half-smiled at me and shrugged.

And I said it.

“Don’t you speak English?”

This has happened before — particularly in Miami. Public places, even government-funded places, with workers who cannot communicate in the nation’s official language.

“Momento,” the woman said.

The little girl cried harder.

A communication challenge

Now, I’ve learned over the years to curb my temper publicly — no matter what I’m feeling. But when it comes to hurting children, I have no patience.

“This is her!” I declared. “That’s her name on the chair! What’s the problem? Why can’t you speak to me?”

The woman suddenly seemed to get what I was saying. She pointed to the name, then to the girl, and when I nodded hard she made a gesture of recognition, and we got the child loaded. The woman was apologetic.

“Ingles … un poco,” she said, as if embarrassed, and as we rolled along I mumbled about how this is America and how do you work in the public sector without a basic vocabulary, etc.

I admit, I was mad at her. But entering the country takes time: There’s passport control, luggage pickup, customs, connecting flights, TSA security, a sky train to new gates. The woman, short and broad-faced with reddish brown hair, stayed with us throughout. She smiled at my little girl and said some things to her in Spanish.

When I needed to use the bathroom, she waited with the child. When I wanted to get us food, she waited and sat with us at a small table.

As the time passed, I tried to remember my high school Spanish and cobbled together a couple of sentences, enough to explain how old the girl was and where we were going. Mostly we used hand motions to communicate. She said several times, “Sorry … sorry … my English.”

An hour after the jetway encounter, we finally got to the gate. It was time to say good-bye.

America, the home of the …

Why do I bring this up? Because a raging debate in this election year seems to center on whose country America really is. There’s talk of taking it back and talk of pushing it forward. Talk of toughening the rules and talk of making rules more inclusive.

And I must admit, during that hour at the Miami airport, I found my feet — and mouth — in both camps.

Yes, I do believe you should speak English if you are serving in public spaces such as airports. It’s not an American citizen’s job to learn Spanish (or any other language) in order to engage services — especially something like wheelchair support. And yes, I admit, a surge of “it’s our country, not yours” simmered inside of me at first.

On the other hand, as we spent more time with the wheelchair service woman, you could see she was frustrated and sorry. And kind. She did her actual job well, was attentive, did things above and beyond pushing a chair, and showed a lot of love.

When we parted, the little girl gave her a hug.

Had I given in to the initial anger — however justified — that moment would never have happened. And that has given me pause. Was it the easiest encounter? No. But in the end, was it impossible to endure? Not at all.

Whose country is it? That debate rages on. But somewhere between being firm in your principles and being patient with others may be the fairest steering of where we go next.


  1. mercedes3

    There will be as many opinions as there are people. In its 62-year history, 12 million immigrants came to America through Ellis Island. Most of us have an ancestor–an immigrant, who came here at some point and place. Now we have a disorderly bureaucratic paper mess despite all of our advances in technology that can’t seem to get things right. Our government can fix that, we can all be firm in our principles, and we all need to learn patience.

  2. Theresa Ramus

    Good article and at least it all worked out for you and you got the wheelchair. As they say patience is a virtue.(ha). It is good that the woman spoke Spanish for other Spanish speaking people that she may encounter in a day but to me she shouldn’t of been hired unless she was enrolled in an English class. Then of course she would of been more of an asset.


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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